U.S. researchers examine how trees survived past ice ages to help inform predictions about future impacts of climate change on biological systems

MISSOULA, Montana , May 7, 2012 (press release) – Certain plant and animal species survived past ice ages tucked away in the complex terrain of mountainous regions. Scientists want to locate and understand these areas that harbored biodiversity despite significant population changes in surrounding areas. Studying these “refugia” will help inform predictions about the future impacts of climate change on biological systems.

Solomon Dobrowski, assistant professor of forest landscape ecology at The University of Montana, along with faculty from the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois, recently received a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to reconstruct refugia locations and species migration routes in northern Idaho during the most recent glacial cycle. Dobrowski will receive $167,000.

“By looking into the past to see how tree species survived climate changes, we can better understand what the future might hold,” Dobrowski said.

Dobrowski also is collaborating with Zack Holden, a scientist from U.S. Forest Service Region 1, who has deployed temperature-logging instruments throughout the region. Data from the instruments will help relate large-scale climate data to the microscale.

The researchers will investigate how and where mountainous terrain may have buffered two critical tree species, western red cedar and mountain hemlock, during past climate changes. They will use three interdisciplinary scientific approaches to locate both refugia and migration routes: DNA-sequencing to show the species’ migration pathways; paleoecological records of pollen to reveal what climate and plant species existed in the region during the coldest periods of the past 50,000 years; and historical models of climate and data on the climatic tolerance of the species to show where species were likely located.

This approach combines three distinct skill sets – genetics, paleoecology and landscape modeling – to train graduate and undergraduate students in biogeography. Results also will be shared in a curriculum workshop for high school science teachers in Oregon. Dobrowski will use the research and results in the summer landscape ecology class he teaches at UM’s Flathead Lake Biological Station. Those students spend two weeks in the field, including in Glacier National Park’s Avalanche Creek area, an example of a western red cedar refugia.

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